What is the Interviewer Really Asking?
Candidates, on the whole, invest inordinate time and effort into interview preparation. You know this to be true. You research the company and the manager, you scour the annual report, you read articles about them in the press, you work your network to find out the "real deal."
On the flip side of your preparation is a general lack of reciprocity on the part of interviewers. What can you do when you step into an interview and face a variation of the following common interview questions?
- Tell me about yourself.
- Tell me a bit about your background and where you're coming from.
- What's your story?
- What brings you here today?
How many times have you gone to an interview and had the nagging feeling that this was the very first time the interviewer looked at your resume? We've all been there.
Considering that employee turnover is a huge cost to employers, and that most of them are being pressured by their management and their shareholders to improve employee retention, you would think that there would be more formalized training around interview techniques for managers. But there isn't, and that leads to Lazy Recruiting.
Lazy Recruiting encompasses things like relying solely on job postings to source candidates, writing ridiculously convoluted job descriptions (ostensibly to filter out unqualified candidates) that repel top talent from even applying, and relying upon canned, overused interview questions.
One of the Lazy Recruiting questions that gives candidates the most trouble is, "So, tell me about yourself." Ugh. Groan. This question gives candidates so much trouble, simply because it's vague. The answer to "tell me about yourself" can go in so many directions! Should you talk about how you biked the Ruta de Maya, or how you hiked the Camino de Santiago? Maybe you should discuss your thoughts on the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious. Or what about your passion for dog shows?
The "Tell me about yourself" question offers you the opportunity to tell the interviewer something unique and different about yourself, within the context of your professional persona. People hire people, after all, not skillsets or experiences.
How to Answer the "Tell Me About Yourself?" Question
Unlike some other questionable interview questions, "tell me about yourself" is one that offers you wide latitude in answering. And with that latitude comes control.
The upside of Lazy Recruiting is that it gives you the opportunity to guide the conversation where you want it to go. For that reason, "tell me about yourself" is actually one of my favorite interview questions.
"Tell me about yourself" offers you the opportunity to tell the interviewer something unique and different about yourself, within the context of your professional persona. People hire people, not skillsets or experiences. "Tell me about yourself" allows you to tell the interviewer who you are, and not just what you do. Consider this standard, canned reply to "tell me about yourself."
I have a master's in computer science, and 15 years of progressive experience in coding, requirements, and documentation. I'm seeking a role that will build upon my skills and experiences and will allow me to grow professionally.
Boring! How many other candidates do you think answered in a similar way? I'd bet that most of them did. Wouldn't this be more interesting?
I'm a builder. I build new programs. I build teams. I build confidence with my clients. Programming is part art, part science, and I approach each new project with a sense of creativity, urgency, and enthusiasm. Now that you know what makes me tick, can you tell me what kinds of new projects you're working on?
That second response sounds like it's from an actual, live human being! Not only does the response to "tell me about yourself" focus on who the candidate is rather than what s/he does, it also turns the question back to the interviewer. This helps to begin a meaningful dialogue, and also helps the candidate quickly get to what the interviewers current business pain is.
The Bottom Line
Lazy Recruiting is everywhere, so prepare for it. Don't waste precious time during an interview responding to "tell me about yourself" by rattling off a bunch of static facts that are listed on your resume. Use the opportunity to tell the interviewer something uniquely human about yourself, and to drive home the message that you are the answer to the current business problem.